If you work in advertising, chances are that someone outside the industry has asked you about subliminal advertising. The 4A’s Marsha Appel looks at the rise and fall of the greatest advertising myth of the 20th century.

It all started in the summer of 1957, when an unsuccessful market researcher named James Vicary announced that he had conducted a “scientific test” at a movie theater in Fort Lee, New Jersey. During a viewing of the film Picnic, he claimed to have flashed messages saying “Drink Coca-Cola” and “Hungry? Eat Popcorn” on the screen for 1/3000 of a second at a time, far below the threshold of conscious perception by the audience. Vicary claimed that sales of popcorn and Coke went up 57.5% and 18.1% respectively.

This led to a flurry of headlines and a lot of consulting income for Vicary. It tied in nicely with the recently published book, Hidden Persuaders, where Vance Packard described the ‘secret powers’ of advertisers to manipulate consumers. Imagine: unethical advertisers could plant subliminal messages in consumers’ minds and trick them into purchasing products that didn’t want or need. This was the era of paranoia about UFOs, Communism and brainwashing, so it really caught the public imagination…and the attention of the government

In January 1958, a demonstration of subliminal advertising was held for the Federal Communications Commission and members of Congress, where that “Eat Popcorn” message was flashed at five second intervals during a TV program. As ad industry publication Printer’s Ink described it, “Having gone to see something that is not supposed to be seen, and having not seen it, as forecast, [the FCC and Congressmen] seemed satisfied.” One senator even quipped “I think I want a hot dog.” As a result, subliminal advertising was not ruled illegal in the United States. However, the FCC said that knowingly airing it is against the public interest, and it could result in problems for broadcast stations at license renewal time.

Under pressure to produce documentation of his scientific methodology and replicate his results, Vicary changed his story repeatedly, and eventually admitted that he’d fabricated the test results. Some critics were doubtful that the experiment had even been conducted in the first place.

The subliminal advertising myth persisted in the public mind, and was given new life when an opportunistic fellow named Wilson Bryan Key popped up in 1973 with a book called Subliminal Seduction. It claimed that unethical advertisers were routinely embedding subliminal messages and sexual imagery into ads in the service of selling products. Supposedly, the word “sex” in the ice cubes of an ad for gin, labia in the frosting of a cake mix ad, or images of erect penises were not consciously perceived but would ‘stimulate’ people to buy the advertised product. Everyone loves a good conspiracy theory, and this really fired up the public’s imagination. It seemed to some like a very plausible explanation of why consumer spending was out of control. Key cashed in with three more books on the topic, or, as John O’Toole (former FCB agency executive and then 4A’s president) put it, “he has written the same book for the fourth time.”

The advertising industry responded emphatically.

  • In 1981, Chuck Adams, then head of the 4A’s Washington office, testified at a hearing before the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. “There is nothing in psychological testing to suggest that actions could be produced against a subject’s will or more effectively than through normally recognized messages.” About Wilson Bryan Key, he added, “I suggest that we should not take too seriously anyone who can sense an insinuation in every advertising statement, and for whom a phallic symbol is anything longer than it is wide.”
  • A 1994 research survey of advertising practitioners, clients, and media specialists by Martha Rogers and Christine Seiler concluded that “Other research has provided evidence that subliminal advertising, even if it were used, would not be effective in producing outcomes desired by marketers, such as a persuasion or intention to purchase. The present study provides evidence that, even if it were effective, subliminal advertising is not, in fact, used.”
  • The 4A’s ran an ad in newspapers across the country with the headline “People have been trying to find the breasts in these ice cubes since 1957,” in an attempt to educate the public on the fallacy of subliminal advertising.

There is no evidence that subliminal advertising was ever widely used. Advertising practitioners know that it’s difficult enough to make a case liminally, never mind subliminally. There are certainly plenty of psychological persuasion techniques and behavioral economics strategies designed to sell products and change minds and attitudes, but subliminal advertising was never a viable mechanism.

The topic seems to have faded into the dusty 20th century archives, and 4A’s Research hasn’t been asked about it in recent years, but one can only imagine what this hoax would have looked like if it had originated in the age of social media.